Four Helpful Tips for Navigating School Lunches

By Janet Kearney, Guest Contributor

Back to School

It’s that time of year again. Parents jaded from the long days of summer, buying backpacks and notebooks, checking bus schedules, and daydreaming about the glass of wine they’ll be treating themselves to after all is said and done.

Yep, it’s back to school season.

As vegans with young children, we also have the added worry of school lunches and influences from our kids’ friends.

My son, Oliver, is starting Pre-K this year. At age four, he is aware that we don’t eat animal products, but he also doesn’t fully understand everything about veganism. Kids want to be like their friends, and my husband and I worry that he might get picked on for his packed vegan meal while his friends eat the macaroni and cheese served at the school cafeteria. Or that he might be bashful on Fridays explaining why he doesn’t participate in “Pizza Friday.”

The last few weeks, my husband and I have been preparing Oliver—and ourselves—for dealing with school and food. We’ve done a few things to help make the situation easier, and I thought it might be helpful if I share a few suggestions.

Everyone is Different and That’s OK!
We spoke to my son about how some of his friends have allergies and can’t eat certain foods. We explained that, like his friends with food allergies, he doesn’t eat certain foods, and that it’s OK to be different.

A community member on the Vegan and Pregnancy Facebook page shared with the group how she tells her kids that the dinosaurs were all different—some were herbivores and some were omnivores. We shared this analogy with Oliver and now he thinks he’s a herbivore giant. When his friends ask him why he isn’t eating something they’re eating, he proudly tells them that he’s a dinosaur and roars.

Coming up with something creative and fun that your kids can relate to and tell their friends may help eliminate feelings of confusion or “differentness.”

Teach Them About Food
When I go grocery shopping, I’ll show Oliver the different foods our family chooses not to eat, like fish sticks and chicken nuggets, and gently explain to him why we don’t buy them. I encourage him to help get the foods we do eat—by letting him grab them off the shelves—and that helps him visually remember those items.

It might be helpful for you, like it has been for us, to encourage your child to participate in the grocery shopping. Not only will it help them understand why the family chooses not to eat animal products, but it may also help them feel empowered and proud of the vegan foods that are packed in their lunch boxes.

PB and J

Meal Plan
Try to plan meals with your kids on the weekends before mid-week stressors pop up and you find yourself scrambling to put together a nutritious lunch that your kids will eat. Ask them to tell you what they want and don’t want to eat for the week.

Similar to involving them in the grocery shopping, it may help your kids feel more comfortable and confident at lunch time. It will also be less stressful for you as the parent because there’s a better chance they’ll eat their lunch and feel satisfied through the rest of the school day.

I’m also sensing a lot of cupcake requests—sorry!

Reach Out
Don’t be afraid to tell teachers, other school staff members, and the parents of your kids’ friends that your child is vegan. You can ask staff to watch your child a little closer during meal times. You can also let the school nurse know that there might be tummy pain if your child accidentally ingests dairy or other animal foods they don’t normally eat.

There will most likely be mistakes and stumbling along the way, but this isn’t about perfection. It can be a challenge to raise vegan children in a non-vegan world. And one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to know that you’re not alone. For more tips and discussions about raising vegan children, check out the Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting Facebook page and the newly launched accompanying website.

Janet is the Founder of the Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting Facebook page—which has 27,000+ members—as well as one of the contributors to the Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting website. For more information about Janet and these vegan parenting resources, check out her recent interview with Vegan Outreach.